Studio: Signature Entertainment
Director: Adam Marcus
Writer: Adam Marcus, Debra Sullivan
Producer: Bryan Sexton
Stars: Michelle Allaire, Petra Areskoug, Pat Destro, Curtis Fortier, John Gilbert, Nathan Hedrick, Freddy John James, Eddie Jordan III, A. Leslie Kies, Drew Lynch, Michael Rady
A dysfunctional family’s Christmas dinner devolves into violent chaos when everyone unknowingly drinks drugged punch.
No matter how much you dread your own family gatherings during December holidays, the Popes have everyone beat. Their dysfunctional Christmas get-together could culminate in everyone quite literally tearing out each other’s throats.
Neurotic April barely makes it past the door with her sycophant boyfriend Ty before instantly regretting her hand in organizing the already awful event. As usual, backbiting matriarch Shari doesn’t bother hiding her hatred for the hired help, or for her children, dishing out disdain and disappointment with wicked ‘Real Housewife’ relish. Not to be outdone, Aunt Carol remains in the running for the catty cougar crown while crude Uncle Carter proudly announces his bowel movement that just obliterated the bathroom.
Perpetually perturbed Penny sits on the sibling side of the table. So does sex-obsessed stepbrother Jackson, who found it fitting to bring slutty stripper Jaqueline as his date to dinner. Stuttering brother Kyle doesn’t want anyone to know about his relationship with one of the caterers and, what’s this? Shari’s bitter ex-husband Leonard just arrived unannounced and blackmailed the witchy woman into letting him join the party.
You’d think the Popes were celebrating Festivus, what with the way passive-aggressive pleasantries grow into contentious confrontations during an impromptu airing of grievances. Unbeknownst to everyone except the culprit, someone spiked the punch with an experimental truth serum from Leonard’s pharmaceutical company. Now they’re all angrily exposing secrets about sexual orientations, illicit affairs, and childhood trauma that left permanent scars.
As if the evening wasn’t enough of a soap opera on steroids, what happens next really blows the top off the circus tent. It seems the super sodium pentothal has an unexpected side effect. Think “28 Days Later” except everyone can somewhat control their minds, just not their inhibitions. Verbal vitriol quickly escalates into vicious violence as blowhard bickering becomes bloody bodies dropping to the floor in pieces.
Relentlessly manic from start to finish, “Secret Santa” rockets through dark humor and darker horror with devilish delight. The movie is raunchy, risqué, and scrapes more than one gutter to plop out every lowbrow laugh it can. But it’s also depraved without being disgusting, adding smartly sly sass to its cynical slaughter using fiendish fervor that prioritizes well-meaning entertainment over mean-spirited spite.
“Secret Santa” nails a terrific trifecta of writing, acting, and directing. Adam Marcus and co-scripter Debra Sullivan are clearly exorcising relatable demons with the Popes representing every archetype of horrible relative imaginable.
Fast moving dialogue incessantly circles around everyone without feeling like any particular person is ever put on pause. There’s a flow to the quick quips and insults where implausible outrageousness almost seems unscripted and organic, like we’re voyeuristically peering through a porthole at improbably real people in real time.
That the cast is stocked entirely with unfamiliar faces makes their acting achievements all the more impressive. It would be impossible to point out a weak leak just as it would be to pick a favorite from the roster. “Secret Santa” juggles a dozen distinct people in ways that other films overloaded with characters usually don’t successfully manage. You’ll actually remember everyone’s names as well as be able to easily identify both their personality and unique purpose in the plot.
Immense credit goes to Adam Marcus’ pinpoint directing. Marcus orchestrates multiple players, circumstances, and tones like a maestro. Every performance is tuned with precision. And finger-snap editing always cuts to the right shot on well-timed cues no matter how much frantic action occurs onscreen.
For all the barbed zingers constantly spewing left and right, surprising drama stops laughs dead in their tracks, in a good way, during a dinner scene that’s tight with tension. “Secret Santa” doesn’t flip the switch into traditional horror mode until the movie moves past its 30-minute mark.
“Secret Santa” actually devolves into overeager silliness when carnage comes out in earnest. Conspicuously computer-generated blood, punching sound effects straight from a 1950s foley library, and phony fight choreography are three outstanding hangnails hurting the middle fingers erected on each of the movie’s hands.
“Secret Santa” could use a technical upgrade overall. The film shot on Red with vintage Nikon lenses, yet somehow looks like a DTV indie recorded on a smartphone. Filmmakers also choose a really weird way to do process shots for driving sequences by projecting traffic footage onto actors’ faces to simulate shooting through reflective windows. Maybe the home video transfer bears some blame, but this ugly sheen over imagery visually cheapens the film.
In an alternate universe where it had a bigger budget and big name stars to match, “Secret Santa” could be a demented holiday horror-comedy classic. In its current incarnation, an uncomfortable obsession with oral sex and incest gags narrows the film’s appeal. Those who tolerate tastelessness played for laughs can still unwrap an irreverent gift given by witty writing and a game cast devoid of dead weight. Act three may leave several things to be desired, but act one definitely delivers a doozy.
Review Score: 70